Android Wear Just Needs Some Really Good Hardware

As Apple’s top-secret wearable device continues to wait quietly in the wings, Google is loudly dominating the wearables discussion at the moment — and Glass has nothing to do with it.

Right now, it’s all about Android Wear, Google’s operating system for wearables — but more specifically, watches.

The challenge with Android Wear is how to simplify smartphone features for the wrist without diluting them, since a watch’s screen is much smaller than a smartphone screen. But since the first Android Wear watches launched at I/O in June, the software seems to impress those who have gotten their hands on it.

It’s the hardware that isn’t selling as well.

We’re all familiar by now with the concept of smartwatches: You can receive your phone’s notifications on your wrist so you don’t need to remove your handset from your pocket every time you need to answer a text, or research something, or remind yourself to do something. And Android Wear does all of those things in spades, and then some. (In time, they will be able to add their own data to the conversation, including information about your body’s fitness, but those features aren’t quite as baked yet.)

Android Wear uses Google Now, the company’s extremely smart personal assistant, as the main interface: You swipe between cards, and click on cards to see more information. You talk to Android Wear via Google Now to search, send texts and emails, or do anything that would normally require a keyboard. It’s useful, although maybe a bit embarrassing when you need to ask your watch to help you find the closest Taco Bell.

The software is solid and simple, albeit a bit slow. And it’s very early on so there aren’t many third-party apps, but those that exist work extremely well: Trulia, Wunderlist, Lyft, Trello, and yes, even Tinder, are available on Android Wear right now.

Google nailed the software part of Android Wear — except for the fact that it works with only Android devices, and only some Android devices. That will change over time, but there’s a bigger issue here.

It needs some hardware to bring it home.

There are three Android Wear hardware options so far, though only two are actually available: The Samsung Gear Live, and the LG G Watch, which are both square wristbands that are, let’s face it, a little dorky-looking. And they cost $US200 each, so there’s that.

Let’s start with those devices, since they’re comparable and the only ones you can buy right now. (The Moto 360, which seems like the most appealing option as it’s the only circular and stylish-looking Android Wear option, is coming later this summer.)

Again, there’s little to complain about with this early edition software: You can keep notes and save them in Google Keep, set an agenda through Google Calendar, and much more.

These are the biggest hardware problems: The design, as we mentioned, isn’t very inviting. It’s thick plastic and clunky-looking. The watch also uses a pedometer for its fitness applications, but the pedometer is actually stored within that device, which means it will count “steps” if you’re waving your arm, or typing, or bouncing around in a speeding cab. In other words, that’s a design flaw.

The biggest Achilles heel with Android Wear devices, however, is most certainly the battery life. According to prolific technology reviewer Marques Brownlee, the LG G Watch “lasts 36 hours if you don’t touch it once, but with regular use it’s dead by the end of the day and you have to recharge it every night.” That means it’s one more “thing” you need to recharge every night, and one less outlet available for other electronics.

But these are the Android Wear smartwatches that are currently available. The Moto 360 will be out soon, and by this time next year, the wearables market will be much more saturated with smartwatches, including, with any luck, at least one model from Apple. By then, manufacturers will be inspired to push the boundaries of their devices with regards to functionality, so hopefully the hardware will match users’ needs with regards to battery life as well.

And yet, the question remains: Do people actually want to spend $US200-plus on a device that does most of the same things their phone can do?

It’s all going to come down to looks. The Moto 360 seems promising as the first circular Android Wear device, but it may still be a bit too thick. If the smartwatch is going to succeed as a product category, it needs to be appealing to more than just one gender. That’s why many are waiting to see what Apple will do.

The functionality is there with Android Wear, but the hardware, so far, is a letdown — particularly in the battery department. Let’s just hope Google can talk to its third-party watchmakers to get a little more creative about their designs. Google deserves some hardware that’s as fun and functional as Android Wear promises to be.

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